Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday “Harnessing the Drum Major Instinct”
When I was in college in the 1980’s, a popular bumper sticker read, “The one who dies with the most toys, wins.” That is the essence the warped Drum Major Instinct Dr. King is warning against in the sermon from which we just heard an exerpt. And while King’s sermon was preached 55 years ago, the phenomenon of that Drum Major Instinct gone awry is as troublesome today as it ever was.
From the time we are babies, learning that when we cry we get attention, we have been working that angle. Advertisers count on our desire to be one of the cool kids to drive their marketing strategies for selling us everything from the right brand of liquor to the best kind of car and the most elite zip codes in which to buy a home. Dr. King railed against this twisting of the Drum Major Instinct in his day, but it wasn’t new even then. Being one of the cool kids was the same impetus that drove Jesus’ disciples James and John to beg tp be seated at Jesus’ right and left In his glory.
It is an ancient perversion that has undergone only slight alterations through the centuries. And that’s because the underlying fear has never changed—the fear that we are not important, that our lives are insignificant. It’s this threat that causes us to lash out against others, hoping to elevate our own status by diminishing theirs. And that’s why I so appreciate Dr. King’s antidote to this sin. He doesn’t suggest that people get rid of the drum major instinct—which I’m guessing most of us would acknowledge would be hard for us to do. Instead he proposes we acknowledge that we have it in us and that we simply point it in another direction. So, you want power, prestige, influence? Join the club. But instead of seeking it by minimizing others, we are encouraged to seek it by serving others.
It is ironic that in 2011, when the MLK monument was first erected on the National Mall there was instantly controversy about it. Specifically, there was concern about a quote engraved upon it, a paraphrase from the very sermon we are exploring today. The inscription around the statue read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
That isn’t what he says in this sermon. In fact, the wording of this paraphrase is exactly the opposite of the point he’s trying to make! At the close of this sermon—in an eerily prescient move, given that he is assassinated a mere three months after delivering it—Dr. King talks about how he’d like to be remembered at his funeral. He says, “Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
That’s entirely different from quoting him as saying, “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness,” isn’t it? I’m glad that in 2013, the artist who created the MLK monument carved over those words; the statue now features more appropriate quotes.
Dr.King’s illustration of how to embrace and channel the Drum Major Instinct is beautiful, but we know that he never completely succeeded in doing so, any more than any of us can. Though a great one, Dr. King was always a man, flawed and fallible as we all are. He was, like the disciples James and John, like all of us, simultaneously a saint and sinner who buckled under the weight of needing to be noticed sometimes. His legacy is not diminished by his humanity. If anything, I find myself encouraged that God can use people with inflated egos and out of kilter Drum Major instincts because that means God can use me too.
Near the end of his Drum Major sermon, however, Dr. King does describe one person who got it right, who never succumbed to selfishness. I’m going to quote it at length because I simply cannot make myself cut a single phrase from this powerful illustration:
I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
At the Worship service, after the reading of the Gospel, there was read an excerpt from “The Drum Major Instinct”, which is the name of the sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church, February 4, 1968. The following is the text of that selection of Dr. King’s sermon:
Excerpt from “The Drum Major Instinct”—A Sermon Delivered by MLK at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Feb. 4, 1968
There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first…When one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up.
A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct. A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. And they have said over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes. Think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.
Not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. What is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds.
But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation. But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me. Be still and know that I’m God. If you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” That can happen to America.
I want you to see what Jesus was really saying [to James and John]. It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?” But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said, in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. He said, “Don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right, if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
He transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.”Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first. You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.” And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
That means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
You can listen to the Gospel, the Dr. King sermon selection, and Pastor Schneider’s sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 1-19-20” name of the sermon.